Howl of the Day: May 31, 2016

Fascism, as a term, has become almost synonymous with injustice. And this common view of fascism is a good place to begin understanding the phenomenon. Once the term is scrutinized just a bit, however, fascism becomes a more difficult thing to understand. This is despite the fact (and to certain extent, because of the fact) that the media is saturated with loud speeches and vivid images on the subject.

Fascism is so familiar to us as a shorthand for injustice that it is hard to see beyond that surface impression. But fascism cannot simply be the same as injustice. However objectionable it is, there are surely other political ills.

For example, the use of force to implement political policies is often referred to as fascistic. The same with political commonplaces, such as declarations of war and the existence of inequity. But force is employed in every type of regime, both good and bad, and inequities of some kind are ubiquitous. Without recourse to some standard of justice, there is no way to distinguish fascism from liberalism, or tyranny from democracy.

Both Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler led their nations to war, to a world war no less, and both also had inequities at home. But Churchill and Hitler were not the same – the ends they served, the causes which drew forth their belligerence, and the aims that shaped and distributed the inequities around them, these were all radically different. Those differences are lost when we cannot identify competing schemes of justice, and when we go no further than evincing disgust at high body counts.

Indeed, it is quite common today, when assessments of conflicts are made, that the totals of dead, wounded, and displaced persons on each side of some affair are set against each other, as if the side that caused more such statistical damage than the other can be considered the wrongdoer, or even reckoned amongst them, perhaps as an equally culpable party.

Whose armies killed more people in the Second World War, Churchill’s or Hitler’s? If the answer were Churchill’s, could he be called the greater agent of war, or perhaps just a similar offender to Hitler, or was he nonetheless an agent of peace?

The kinds of calculations mentioned here cannot help answer these questions. Such calculations are made in complete ignorance of the ends to which the sides are devoted, that for which they fight and act. This is not to say that the ends simply justify the means, but it is to say that both means and ends are things that matter.

The candidacy of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States, as another kind of example, has caused a great deal of public discussion, much of it shrill. Not a little of the noise has included comparisons of Trump himself to Adolf Hitler and his political movement to fascism.

Here at Political Animal Magazine, we have thrice howled (1, 2, 3) about this issue, taking pains to point out some of the things that make Trump a problematic candidate, but also to dispute the aforementioned characterizations of him and his politics. Why have we done this and why does it matter?

What is important – what is always important in political matters – is that justice and injustice be correctly assessed. This is the case for practical as well as theoretical reasons. Practically speaking, the character of each and every citizen’s life depends upon the justice of the regime in which they live, which is to say the politics of that regime. From the theoretical perspective, there is no serious self-understanding that can be achieved without an essentially accurate view of what politics are and what they seek – the deep desire for justice and the ways in which human beings pursue it.

It is certainly not to spare Donald Trump’s feelings, fragile as they might be, that the tendency to call him a fascist should be combatted. It is for the sake of understanding fascism, a political movement which has lent its name in our time to the most apparent and agreed upon injustice, as well as for understanding our own actual circumstances, and, ultimately, understanding ourselves.

The misidentification of fascism and of tyranny – of which fascism itself is but an oddly named version, cripples the pursuit of these vital tasks. Tyranny itself is generally the rule of an individual who’s whims and desires take the place of law and who typically governs in an extreme and cruel manner. It is an unjust type of governance, and one which can take many forms. It therefore requires a sense of justice in the observer if it is to be identified in any of them.

When the particularly fascist form of tyranny first appeared by that name in Italy in 1915 and then, later, in its most authoritative expression, as National Socialism in Germany, scholars and intellectuals had a hard time identifying it as just that. They had devised and come to believe in new modes of thinking about political things, including ostensibly scientific modes, which did not require considerations of justice. Fascism seemed a new thing, just like their science. Increasingly, since that time, the same groups have had a hard time just identifying fascism as itself.

Partly in response to these problems, the political philosopher, Leo Strauss, once wrote that fascism of the National Socialist variety, “had no other clear principle than the murderous hatred of Jews” (Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion). This actually points to one of the things that makes the matter so difficult for people grasp. The other features of National Socialism, in particular, and fascism, in general, are by contrast so unclear. They bear resemblance to so many other political phenomena that, upon close scrutiny, they easily lose their shape and color altogether.

In practical terms, this last fact means that concerned persons must always be vigilant. It also means that the kind of labor required to identify fascism, if and when it arises, so that it can be effectively blocked, is continuous by its nature. Politics is a distinctly human phenomenon (man is a political animal, in other words), and human beings are changeable and finite – there can be no permanent solutions to political problems, only an ongoing series of efforts to address them.

It is an unfortunate necessity of current speech that even by calling things fascist, we tend to accept something of the integrity and coherence of fascist thought – we accept that the people who once called themselves fascists or Nazis had accurately depicted themselves as proponents of a novel and distinct movement, something other than just plain old brutal tyranny gussied up in timely dress and set off by the most despicable hatred of Jews as an accessory.

These self-named fascists were pigs that, owing to a rampant propensity for misidentification of tyranny in their time, were actually able to disguise themselves to many just by wearing lipstick. But we have the advantage of retrospect and, so, even if we have regrettably accepted something of fascist language, we need not accept their thoughts, nor the thoughts of those who were unable to see the fascists for what they truly were.

This is the immediate reason that fascism and tyranny require proper usage, and should not be bandied about irresponsibly. The distaste that fascism inspires in us, and tyranny too when we have understood fascism to be a version of it, reminds us not only of injustices that we despise, but, then, with just a little further reflection, of the conceptions of justice that we ourselves hold dear.

Fascism correctly identified and rightly understood serves to remind us, liberal and democratic people that we are, that our own political commitments have actual content – we ourselves make claims about justice. It also serves to remind us that justice as we have it in our time is by no means an invincible force. Tyranny has always been possible, and likely will be as long as there are human beings in the world.

Tyranny itself, which has myriad forms, is far from the only thing that we need guard against. The great 19th century political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed America and warned of what came to be called “soft despotism”. Tocqueville wrote of a regime that, “having… successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd” (Democracy in America; Volume II, Book 4, Chapter 6).

This alert to the danger of soft despotism, and its special place in America, is by now almost two-centuries old. We are bound to wonder what has gone on with the trend in the intervening years, and whether or not anyone is paying much attention to the matter at present. Or perhaps we are so convinced by all the screens and the din and the bad scholarship that we believe the only real danger to our way of life is easily spotted, because it comes wearing a toothbrush mustache.

It cannot be ignored that there are problems here, problems that are special to justice as we hold it, whether we hold it so knowingly or not. Amongst these problems, the following should be counted. That liberalism is maintained in part by taking disputes about justice out of politics, and that democracy is maintained in part by promoting an unwillingness for citizens to judge of each other.

The first can breed forgetfulness of the fact that liberalism is even a thing, a set of “values” or beliefs, which must be secured by great effort, rather than a naturally occurring condition in which people just happen to find themselves. The second can lead to a situation in which liberalism is viewed as an end in itself, wherein human beings cannot find it within themselves to pursue worthwhile lives even though they are quite free to do so. These problems are not mentioned here in order to disparage liberal democracy, but, quite to the contrary, they are mentioned because we must know our frailties in order to preserve our strengths.

There are many dangers to our way of life, some of lesser magnitude and some greater. And some of these dangers are expressed in the candidacies of men like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump, who has rocketed to the forefront of the American political scene, sees politics primarily in terms of crude gain, and only barely as principles of justice of any kind. And Sanders, who has also risen further than most could have anticipated, has succeeded by promoting an ideological program (however poorly elaborated) that is absolutely inimical to liberal principles.

There is much to be wary of in all of this. We should not help any of it along by misidentifying it. And we should not harm our own self-understanding by misrepresenting fascism, or failing to appreciate liberal democracy.

Image: Emilio De Bono, Benito Mussolini, Italo Balbo and Cesare Maria De Vecchi during the March on Rome.